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Expert Interview

The 20th Party Congress: A One Man Show — An interview with Joseph Torigian

By Elissa Bozhkov, 2022 MIA Graduate, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy and Katy Norris, MPP Student, UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy

Joseph Torigian is an assistant professor at the School of International Service at American University in Washington and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center. His research focuses on the politics of authoritarian regimes and elite power struggles, with a focus on China and Russia. On Aug. 24, 2022 we sat down with Torigian to discuss his thoughts on the upcoming 20th Party Congress, Xi Jinping’s efforts to consolidate power, and the historical parallels with both China and the USSR. As an expert on elite politics, Torigian provides a unique perspective on the misunderstandings that some China watchers have had about inner-party power struggles.

The Chinese Communist Party is preparing to hold its 20th Party Congress on Oct. 16, 2022. Can you give us some background on the significance of these congresses for Chinese elite politics in the past, and whether their significance has changed over time?

Party Congresses tend not to be big surprises by the time they are held. There’s a lot of work put into them ahead of time, so they’re choreographed. These congresses are useful to the leadership because, even though so many of the decisions happen in rather mysterious ways, it’s useful to convey a sense of legitimacy to the work reports and conclusions they present. 

Congresses also bring a lot of people together to acclaim the top leadership and talk about how wonderful they are. That makes it harder for people to say later that there’s something wrong with the direction the party is going. These congresses also help party and non-party members understand what the top leadership wants for the next five years. 

In your view, what does President Xi Jinping hope to achieve at the coming 20th Party Congress? 

If we look at the track record of outside observers trying to guess what’s going on within the black box of Chinese elite politics, we haven’t done very well. In fact, even people within the Chinese elite are only guessing. That’s why these congresses are an important signaling mechanism to the elite. My sense is that a lot of what we are going to see is being planned in the mind of one person — Xi Jinping. 

It would be a surprise if Xi Jinping doesn’t get whatever he wants at this Congress. By looking at history, we know that Leninist regimes are extraordinarily leader-friendly. Xi Jinping has established special relationships with the military and the political police. He has crafted a public image as the only person who can defend the regime from what the top leadership sees as existential threats to the CCP. 

Given all that, my assumption is that Xi Jinping wants another acclamation and an imprimatur to continue to take the party where he wants to go. One big question everyone should watch out for is whether or not he will take steps in terms of a successor. My own sense is that he isn’t that old yet and might not feel pressure to make announcements. 

What are the biggest challenges Xi might face in achieving these aims?

Some people think that Xi has been facing increasing challenges. They point to what they say are policy failures, such as the relationship with Russia or zero-COVID, and allude to a possible policy rift inside the party, as shown by Premier Li Keqiang’s speech about the economy. But we don’t know what kind of arguments happen behind closed doors. My own sense is we have probably overstated the challenges he is facing in terms of his personal political position.

Furthermore, maybe people at the top echelons don’t think that the relationship with Russia is a mistake, or they don’t see a better option to zero-COVID. Even if these policies are seen as mistakes, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a trigger mechanism within this type of system where Xi Jinping will inevitably be punished. I don’t think there’s great evidence that Xi has a lot of potential challenges to his goals coming from elites within the Party.

Does Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power have precedent in the Mao-era? More specifically, what has Xi learned from this era and the succession that followed Mao’s death?

A lot of people have said that Xi Jinping is returning to the Mao era and rejecting the Deng era. According to this view, Deng Xiaoping was somebody who cared a lot about collective leadership, listened to the views of others within the top echelons of power, and pursued real institutionalization. But, the more evidence we have about the post-Mao transition, the more we see that Deng was not some kind of quasi-democrat. He saw the party as only functioning with a core. He thought there had to be an individual who once they made up their mind, they could make things happen despite disagreement. However, Xi Jinping is different from Deng in important ways. Deng was never the formal leader of the party and, very often, he wasn’t the day-to-day decision maker. Xi Jinping has gone to great lengths to collect these formal accolades of authority, and he seems to be more deeply involved in decision-making than Deng Xiaoping ever was. 

Xi successfully amended the PRC constitution in 2018 to remove term limits for presidents with relatively little resistance from other elites. However, some experts have noted some pushback to Xi’s consolidation of power ahead of the congress. What do you think of Xi’s position?

One possibility is that there is elite resistance, and they are truthfully talking to Western journalists about how Xi Jinping is in trouble. Another possibility is that there are people within the regime who don’t like Xi Jinping, and one of the few weapons that they have is to claim to journalists that Xi Jinping is in trouble. I haven’t seen persuasive evidence that there is any real coalescing of a group that would present a meaningful challenge to Xi. 

There are lots of reasons for that. There is a political culture that believes the CCP only works with a core; there’s also a collective action problem in terms of getting a group to cooperate to push Xi Jinping out of power. There’s also a realization that if they went after Xi Jinping, this could be extremely destabilizing. You don’t want to topple the whole house of cards just because you don’t like somebody. 

Some commentators have drawn comparisons between the Khruschev’s efforts to consolidate power during the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s 20th Congress in 1956 and the upcoming Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Congress. In your view, how valid are these comparisons?

Certainly, the most famous incident at the Soviet Union’s 20th Party Congress was Khruschev’s speech criticizing Stalin. We know that Chinese leaders from Mao to Xi Jinping saw that as a huge mistake and believed that criticism of a country’s history was a direct threat to regime security. Also, the 20th Party Congress in the Soviet Union happened in the wake of ongoing political turbulence after Stalin died. Xi Jinping has been in power long enough that I doubt there are any unanswered questions about why people should obey Xi Jinping.

Is there anything else we should be on the lookout for at the Congress? 

The one thing to keep in mind is that as we get closer to the Congress, the rumor mill is going to move into a whole other level beyond what we’ve seen so far. We should be really cautious about that, both because Leninist regimes are inherently misinformation factories but also because people use that to weaponize information in pretty easy ways on both sides of the Pacific. 

Given this information environment, we should be cautious about drawing facile conclusions about the Congress.

With the 20th Party Congress scheduled to start on Oct. 16, 2022, all signs indicate that Xi Jinping’s grasp on power is as strong as ever. Though we may not have clear insights into Xi’s goals for the Congress, there seems to be little chance that Xi would not get his way. However, as Torigian reminds us, the true significance of political events like the 20th Party Congress is elusive. Without an obvious successor in sight and with his challengers silenced, Xi Jinping seems on track for another round of acclamation to start off his unprecedented third term.